Conservationists' pre-election nightmares became real Nov. 8. A landslide gave Republicans a majority of the seats in the U.S. House of Representatives for the first time in 40 years, and turned already conservative state legislatures in the West further to the right.
"It's not just the reversal, it's
the size of the reversal," says Bruce Farling, director of the
Montana chapter of Trout Unlimited. "We may not have the guns to
bracing for an onslaught of anti-green legislation. They fear that
industry groups will use their emboldened corps of political allies
to weaken laws protecting wildlife and wildlands from mining,
grazing, logging and commercial development. Many observers predict
that environmental bills that had chances of passing in the 103rd
Congress will be dead on arrival in the 104th. These include
Superfund, the Safe Drinking-Water Act, the 1872 Mining Law reform
and a half dozen other progressive or reform
In Washington, D.C., the staffs of
environmental groups are already starting to transform themselves
from insiders to outsiders, eavesdropping on Republican plans to
gut environmental laws like the Endangered Species Act and the
Clean Water Act. This is not an unfamiliar role, given a
12-year-long guerrilla war with the Reagan and Bush
They are also sounding tougher
than they have in months. "If Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich misread
the election returns as giving them open season on environmental
protection laws, then they are making a tragic mistake," warns Dan
Weiss, Sierra Club's political director in Washington, D.C.
What environmental legislation emerges depends
in large part on the gatekeepers of congressional committees.
Republican leaders say they will cut a number of committees by the
first of the year as part of their promise to streamline
government; there has been talk, for example, of merging the House
Natural Resources Committee with the Merchant Marine and Fisheries
Committee. Environmentalists say the outlook is bleak no matter
what structure emerges, because lawmakers hostile to a green agenda
will take charge.
Alaska Rep. Don Young, R, who
had a 2 percent voting record on environmental issues in the 103rd
Congress, according to the League of Conservation Voters, is poised
to take the helm of the House Natural Resources Committee, now
headed by California Democrat George Miller. Young is most
passionate about opening up the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to
oil drilling, while Miller is a staunch advocate for ending
public-land subsidies to mining, timber and ranching
Nevada Rep. Barbara Vucanovich, R, a
consistent opponent of public-lands reforms, may assume the chair
of the subcommittee on minerals which oversees mining on public
Utah Rep. Jim Hansen, R, is positioned to
head the subcommittee on public lands and national parks, which
decides policy on wilderness, public-lands mining and grazing, and
national parks. He would replace the environmental
protection-minded Bruce Vento, a Minnesota Democrat.
Just before the election, Hansen said he would
like to form a "parks closing committee" that would recommend
shutting units of the national park system. He cited Great Basin
National Park on the Utah-Nevada border. "If you've been there
once, you don't need to go again," he told
The Senate leadership looks much the same.
Alaska's Frank Murkowski, another pro-development conservative, is
likely to chair the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee
now presided over by Bennett Johnston, D-La. Johnston has been both
villain and hero for environmentalists. He pushed hard for mining
reform last year, but is a long-time proponent of new oil
development in Alaska's wildlands and burying nuclear waste in
Idaho's Larry Craig, R, who carried the
ball for the mining industry's "reform" bill, could head the
subcommittee overseeing any action on the issue.
Republican Sen. Mark Hatfield of Oregon, who
will again chair the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, a
post he held from 1980 to 1986, can again move to direct federal
dollars to major Northwest projects. Environmentalists worry about
Hatfield's power to determine timber sale levels on federal lands
through appropriations to the Forest Service and Bureau of Land
Management. During the 1980s, Hatfield used his clout to keep
timber sale levels high and to push through "riders' overruling
court injunctions that blocked logging, although he would not have
been successful without help from some Democrats in the region.
Hatfield hinted at the kind of power he might
wield on the Appropriations Committee when he said that a deal
might now be cut to provide a short-term supply of federal timber
to the Northwest in exchange for reauthorization of an amended
Endangered Species Act. "That can be be a strong leverage to call
off the dogs who say down with (the act)," Hatfield told the Eugene
Register-Guard a few days after the election.
The Senate Environment and Public Works
Committee, which will consider legislation reauthorizing the
Endangered Species Act, could turn out to be a bright spot for
conservationists. But the man slated for the committee chair,
moderate Republican John Chafee of Rhode Island, is under attack
from fellow party members. Congress Daily quoted Texas Republican
Phil Gramm saying, "John Chafee's views were not endorsed last
night (Nov. 8). I think Chafee and others will look at the results
and get on the team." Environmentalists fear that conservatives
will successfully lobby party members to bypass Chafee in favor of
Wyoming Sen. Al Simpson, R, for the chair.
all environmentalists are down-in-the-mouth about the ascendancy of
the Republicans. Andy Kerr, executive director of the Oregon
Natural Resources Council, says the new Republican leadership,
while obviously anti-environmental in its disposition, isn't
terribly different from the Democratic leadership it
House Speaker Tom Foley "was horrible
on the environment. Always has been," says Kerr. "His defeat ... is
the single best news a salmon could hope to hear." Foley has been a
staunch opponent of drawing down the reservoirs in the Columbia
Basin to help endangered salmon because it would hurt his
district's aluminum industry, which relies on cheap hydroelectric
power from the dams.
Other Western Democrats have
also been less than stellar, Kerr says. "Too many environmentalists
have let the Larry LaRoccos, Pat Williamses, Les Aucoins and their
kind slide. These "liberals' do anti-environment things, but we let
them do it because we fear worse. The good news is the worst is
here, and if environmentalists are smart, we can turn it to our
Kerr says environmentalists need to
do a better job of nurturing Republicans who are good on the
But the immediate future for
environmentalists seems likely to be filled with defensive battles.
If they fail to stop the Republican leadership from passing
anti-environmental legislation, they can always hope for a
presidential veto. But would Clinton kill bills as vigorously as
his Republican predecessors?
"I don't think we
can count on the president to veto bad bills," says Mike Matz,
executive director of the Southern Utah Wilderness Alliance. "I
would hope that the election would show the administration that it
needs to change its approach and come out swinging, but I expect
If there is a silver lining
in the election, it could be its shock value. The conservative
landslide may energize an environmental movement that even its
leaders say has become complacent in recent years.
"This election is a wake-up call to the American
people," says Sierra Club's conservation director, Bruce Hamilton.
"It's time to step up to the front lines or the things that you
care about will be lost."